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The best boxing movies ever made

Few sports have proven themselves to be as reliably cinematic as boxing. It’s a duel between two individuals, and as such, the matches are always intensely personal. It’s no wonder, then, that boxing has been a subject of moving pictures since basically the second they were created, and has even been central to several major video games.

In that time, though, some movies, from Raging Bull to the upcoming Creed III, have really expanded what a boxing movie can do. Some of these movies focus on real people, and others on invented figures, but each of them is a thrilling sports spectacle, and that’s what made all of them worthy of this list.

Gentleman Jim (1942)

Gentleman Jim
Genre Comedy, Drama
Stars Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith, Jack Carson
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Errol Flynn is among the forgotten movie stars of the golden age of Hollywood, and Gentleman Jim is a wonderful showcase for everything he was capable of. The film is a period piece set at the turn of the century, and follows “Gentleman” Jim Corbett as boxing evolves from a rough and tumble sport to something that is far more professionalized. Gentleman Jim is certainly a bit old-fashioned, but part of its charm is that you basically know what you’re getting, and you can still find yourself pleased with the final result.
Gentleman Jim (Official Trailer 1942)

Ali (2001)

65 %
Genre Drama
Stars Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight
Directed by Michael Mann

It wouldn’t feel right to put together a list like this without honoring one of the greatest athletes to ever compete in the sport. Michael Mann’s Ali is not often viewed as one of his best works, but its documentary realism takes us through all of the major moments in the champ’s life.

Although we get plenty of time inside the ring, Ali also focuses on the boxer’s political and spiritual awakening and the way that only seemed to strengthen his work inside the ring. Ali is also one of Will Smith’s definitive performances, even if it didn’t quite win him the Oscar.

ALI Trailer

When We Were Kings (1996)

When We Were Kings
83 %
Genre Documentary
Stars Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Don King
Directed by Leon Gast
The only documentary to make this list, When We Were Kings chronicles the lead-up to the famous Rumble in the Jungle, which saw Muhammad Ali taking on George Foreman. What we see are two fighters with wildly different temperaments and styles who ultimately face off in the heat and humidity of sub-Saharan Africa. The boxing itself is plenty thrilling, but what proves to be even more compelling is Ali himself, who was such a massive presence.

The Set-Up (1949)

The Set-Up
Genre Crime, Drama
Stars Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias
Directed by Robert Wise

A lean, mean, drama from Robert Wise, The Set Up is perhaps more focused on its characters than any other movie on this list. The movie follows an aging boxer on the verge of retirement who is spending the hours before his last match contemplating whether he wants to take a dive.

It’s one of the dilemmas a boxer comes up against, but Wise never makes the movie feel played out or corny. Instead, he focuses on the decisions of this one guy, and how they’ll eventually determine what kind of future awaits him.

The Set Up - 1949 - Clip

The Fighter (2010)

The Fighter
79 %
Genre Drama
Stars Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams
Directed by David O. Russell

Loosely adapting the true story of the Ward brothers, The Fighter is about family as much or perhaps even more than it’s about boxing. Both men were welterweight boxers from Lowell, Mass., and Dicky once showed a lot of promise in the ring. Ultimately, though, he succumbed to a crack addiction and he now works as a trainer to his brother Micky.

What makes The Fighter great, though, is that its triumphs are all interpersonal. It’s a movie about a family making room for one another, and the performances are terrific across the board.

The Fighter (2010) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

The Harder They Fall (1956)

The Harder They Fall
Genre Drama
Stars Humphrey Bogart, Rod Steiger, Jan Sterling
Directed by Mark Robson

It is based on the famous career of Primo Carnera, which was one of the most corrupt in the history of sports. A foreign fighter whose fights are fixed without his knowledge, as the mob figures surrounding him take him all the way to the top, but siphon off most of his winnings as he goes.

Our central fighter winds up highly vulnerable, discovering that the world he thought he knew was built on lies. And, because his money was not his own, all of the glory he winds up with doesn’t add up to all that much.

1956 The Harder They Fall Official Trailer 1 Columbia Pictures

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Million Dollar Baby
86 %
Genre Drama
Stars Hilary Swank, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman
Directed by Clint Eastwood

One of the few boxing movies to actually win Best Picture, Million Dollar Baby deserved every single plaudit that came its way. Following Hilary Swank as a female boxer who insists on being trained by Clint Eastwood’s aging, weary trainer, the movie delivers on both triumph and heartbreak.

The material in Million Dollar Baby could easily feel maudlin, but Eastwood’s direction gives it such a deft touch that it feels anything but. This story ends in tragedy, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to love about the journey.

Million Dollar Baby (2004) Official Trailer - Hilary Swank, Clint Eastwood Movie HD

Creed (2015)

82 %
Genre Drama
Stars Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Directed by Ryan Coogler

Taking Rocky Balboa out of the ring seemed like a recipe for disaster for Ryan Coogler, but we had nothing to worry about. With Creed, Coogler managed to give new life to the franchise, using Rocky and Apollo Creed’s legacy as the foundation for a new story.

Michael B. Jordan’s central performance is perfectly calibrated, giving us a sense of wounded vulnerability that has to be carefully guarded inside the ring. Stallone himself is even better, shifting into the mentor role without missing a single step.

Creed - Official Trailer [HD]

Rocky (1976)

70 %
Genre Drama, Romance
Stars Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young
Directed by John G. Avildsen

Sylvester Stallone’s story of a Philly boxer who manages to hold his own in the ring with a world champ, Rocky is everything you could possibly want from a sports movie. What you might forget, though, is that Rocky also relishes the details of its titular character’s small, sad life.

Everything about the movie has become a cliche in the years since its release, but Rocky itself remains almost startlingly powerful. It’s no wonder the movie spawned a franchise that is still running to this day.

ROCKY (1976) | Official Trailer | MGM

Raging Bull (1980)

Raging Bull
89 %
Genre Drama, History
Stars Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s career cannot be boiled down to a single film, but this may be the pinnacle of his collaboration with Robert De Niro. Raging Bull tells the story of Jake LaMotta, an incredible boxer who was also a functional alcoholic and regularly abused his wife.

The film works because Scorsese doesn’t shy away from any of the more disturbing parts of LaMotta’s life. De Niro’s commitment to the role only makes the film feel more vibrant and lived in, but this isn’t a typical story of sports triumph. Raging Bull is willing to be a whole lot uglier than that.

Raging Bull Official Trailer #1 - Robert De Niro Movie (1980) HD

Editors' Recommendations

Movie images and data from:
Joe Allen
Joe Allen is a freelance writer based in upstate New York focused on movies and TV.
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